A Sip. A Bite, A Mouthful: A Memoir of food and growing up in Shiraz is the title of a book by Afsaneh Hojabri. A story of growing up in Shiraz of the 1960s told through memories of food and cuisine, A Sip, a Bite, a Mouthful contains an account of Iranian customs, passions and rituals; it depicts a vivid picture of life in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran; and it touches on experiences of Iranian expatriates and the migration of their favourite foods, feasts, tastes and eating habits to the west. Currently sold at Amazon and Smashwords. Visit the book’s website for all the relevant information >>> asipabiteamouthful.com
Chapter One: Meeting the Cooks: My Mom and My Maama
Saleheh squatted under the yard’s wall, right next to the valve on the water pipes that ran the length of our house. She had the round edge of her black, semi-transparent head wrap, a maghna, crossed at her neck and thrown back over her shoulders as she always did when her hands were busy with messy chores. In a big, round, copper tray placed in front of her, six shoorideh fish were gliding and glistening under Saleheh’s skilled hands and the summer sunbeams, ready to be cleaned and stuffed. Mom was in the kitchen, preparing the fish filler: fresh coriander and fenugreek that Saleheh had already cleaned, washed and finely chopped to be fried in a paste-like mixture of turmeric and chili pepper powder. While most of the dazzling scent of the spicy filler wafted out to the street through the kitchen’s window, the trail also reached the other end of the house and into the backyard where I was sitting with Saleheh.
It had been almost two years since we had purchased our new house in Shiraz in 1968. At the farthest corner of the yard, the already-chopped-and-simmered tomato flesh had been flattened on other copper trays to be sundried and further thickened without losing its glittering, red hue. For the entire two or three weeks of the paste-making process, Saleheh, Mom and occasionally an older sister carried the trays in and out of the building—into the sun, out of the dust, into the air, out of the rain—like an insecure cat moving her kittens around. Sooner or later, a muddy ball always escaped a pack of my siblings to land in the middle of the trays, doing irrevocable damage.
From where I was sitting with Saleheh, we could see our flowerbeds encircling the central pond or the hoze, as well as the fruit trees that surrounded it. We had a black mulberry tree that had been adopted from Bushehr, my parents’ birthplace, as a sapling. It produced gigantic, juicy berries the size of fat fingers and painted half the yard’s tiles as well as the faces, arms and legs of all enthusiastic mulberry pickers a dark purple. Then there was our grapevine, which grew into a tall, wide tent of green grapes over a couple of years, providing Mom the supplies to make stuffed grape leaves (dolmeh) at least twice a year. We also had a wild pomegranate tree that no one would either claim responsibility for planting or vote to cut down. From late summer to mid-fall, the tree gave extremely sour and acrid pomegranates, good only as a chaser with Iranian vodka.
Finally, standing in our flowerbeds surrounding the central pond was a single, sour orange tree, a naaranj, which wore a perfumed, white robe of blossoms in the spring and an orange robe of fruit in early summer. Short-lived, homegrown sour oranges gave us all the more reason to eat fish during that period. No amount of money could buy the joy of running off to the other end of the yard in the middle of lunch to pick an armful. We peeled the rinds across the middle so that, when cut in half, the bitterness of the hard skin would not infuse the pulp when we squeezed them over halva sefid fish, that had been rolled in a mix of turmeric and flour before being stir fried, or on the stuffed shoorideh fish served with mixed herb rice that we prepared that day.
Saleheh scaled the fish one at a time, working from tail to head all the way to the side fins. She then briskly cut off the fins before giving the body a hasty, first rinse. I crouched down to face her, with chin in palm, as flying fish scales landed in my unkempt hair amidst the soft buzz of hovering flies. I used to sit and watch Saleheh for long hours, registering how she prepared each food and tucking the details away in the hidden recesses of my mind. I studied her hands intensively, but often learned nothing because I was so mesmerized by the sharp contrast between the dark pink skin of her coarse palms and the dark brown that stretched across the backs of her hands.
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